Kelly had to hitch two rides, but he finally got to the Outer Limits Bar and Grill in Big Chimney just before two o’clock. Only a scraggly bunch of leftovers and stragglers remained and were blearily watching a road bowling game on an off-brand, streaming sports channel.
The motley crowd kept their voices low to listen to the commentators on the television, not that any of them could make out more than a word edgewise. Nobody in the bar spoke Mandarin or knew that’s what they were listening to, but they appreciated the Chinese announcers’ enthusiasm. The sportscasters shouted and hooted after every toss of the cannonball.
Everybody was so into the show, nobody really paid any attention when Kelly came through the door, looking like he’d been washed off with a firehose.
Glancing toward the television, just to see what the room was gawking at, he fiddled through his front pockets for a couple of bucks as he made his way to the bar.
He came up with a couple of crumpled and waterlogged bills, the last of what he got from selling grass to Matt at the Shopaminit, enough for a couple of beers and some conversation with the bartender, Jake.
“Give me a Bud Lite,” he said.
Jake, transfixed by an Irish game being played in the hills of China, didn’t even look at him.
“We’re out,” he said. “We got Coors and Olympia.”
Kelly frowned. He didn’t like either of those.
“You got Coors Lite?”
Jake said, “No. I told you, we got Coors and Olympia.”
“I don’t want all the calories,” he said. “How do you run out of Bud Lite?”
Jake shrugged and continued to watch the television, along with the other eight or nine people in the bar.
“Fine,” Kelly said. “Let me have whichever is cheaper.”
“They cost the same,” Jake said. “Three-fifty.”
Kelly huffed and asked, “Well, do you at least have some peanuts or something for me to snack on?”
Jake turned toward Kelly, a scowl on his face.
“You want a bib, too? Where do you think you are? If you want food, you got to buy it. This here is a bar and grill.”
“Well, can I order a hamburger?”
Jake picked up a glass and poured a beer.
“No, you can’t. The kitchen closed an hour ago.” He set the glass in front of Kelly with a hard thud.
Kelly handed over the money and then put his hands around the glass and said, “Come on, Jake. Cut me some slack. I walked a long way to get here.”
“That’s your problem,” Jake said. “You didn’t have to come here.”
A couple of the people watching the game on the television glanced at Kelly to see if what was going on between him and Jake was more interesting than teams of people chucking steel balls down a desolate, country road.
It wasn’t, and they went back to the game.
Kelly sighed and said, “I’m sorry, alright? And I owe you.”
A few years ago, Jake and Kelly had been friends –well, not exactly friends. Jake showed up to some of the same backwoods’ parties, where they both chased girls, drank too much and got high.
At some point, they’re casual association turned into a professional relationship. Kelly began buying a little weed from Jake every now and again, not enough for Kelly to think Jake was a regular, but enough that neither of them worried that the other was going to turn them into the cops.
Jake dabbled. He smoked some and sold a little, but he’d has aspirations for doing a bit more.
Two and a half years ago, Kelly got in trouble with his supplier. He’d bought a little too much on credit and smoked a little too much to turn a profit. To catch up, he’d cut his dope with an Italian seasoning mix he’d picked up at Sam’s Club.
He didn’t use a lot, just enough to stretch out the couple of ounces he had.
Nobody noticed the first time because he told everybody the marijuana was something special from Europe, which was almost true. Italy was part of Europe.
The second time Kelly got in the same fix, he used too much oregano and rosemary. Jake, who was also cutting the dope and selling it again, got called out by one of his customers. Word got around that he was selling pizza seasoning, not pot, and nobody would buy so much as a nickel’s worth of anything from him.
He was shut out.
At the time, Kelly denied everything. He couldn’t afford to admit to anything. He needed the money. He’d just bough that terrarium for his iguana.
“I want to make it right,” Kelly said. “That’s partly why I’m here.”
Jake rolled his eyes and said, “Well, here we go. What is it? I’m giving you anything. You’re not getting a dime out of me. I don’t care what you have for sale.”
Kelly took a sip of his beer, which tasted like sour dishwater and told him, “I’m not selling anything. I have an opportunity for the two of us to make a lot of money, a lot of money, maybe 50 or 60 grand, if you’re interested.”
Jake shook his head. “You don’t have anything going that would be worth even half of that.”
Kelly nodded. “Usually, you’d be right. I’ve been in the middle of something of a bad patch. That’s true.”
The bartender laughed. “I heard you moved back in with your Mama again. How many times have you done that now?”
Kelly nodded. Sure. Things did not look good.
“Just the same,” he told Jake. “I’ve got something, which would make up for our little falling out and then some.”
On the television, the Chinese announcers were going wild. Someone had done something, not that anyone could figure out what.
“I don’t think I’m interested,” Jake said and started back toward the group watching the game. “Just finish your beer and get going.”
“How are thing with you and Rose?”
The subject was tender. Jake turned around and said, “You can keep your mouth shut about me and Rose. We’re working on things.”
“No, you’re not,” Kelly said, drinking his beer. “Rose hasn’t talked to you in months. She kicked you out.”
“We’re working things out,” the bartender said. “She thought we needed some time apart and with her being pregnant and all, I thought it was best to respect her wishes, give her some space –not that it’s any of your business.”
He took two steps to the register and hit a couple of buttons. The drawer sprang open and Jake took out four bucks.
“Here,” he said putting the cash in front of Kelly’s glass. “Just take your money and go.”
Kelly held up his hands. “Hey, wait a second. You’ve got me all wrong. I’m here about a business proposition. I’m not here to insult you –and look, you have nothing but my sympathy about the Rose situation. I’m a victim, too. I was working at the Shopaminit about a week ago and she fired me. No cause. She just got crazy and told me to get out.” He took another sip of his beer and then collected the money on the bar. “But pregnant women, what are you going to do? It’s all those hormones, you know?”
The bartender nodded.
“It ain’t been easy,” he said.
Kelly let him stew in his self-pity for a moment and then he said, “Jake, I’m going to ask you something that’s going to make you mad, but I’m asking it like a friend because there are things, I think you need to know.”
“What?” He said.
“Do you know for sure that the baby Rose is carrying is yours?”
Jake’s broad face flushed a little and his eyes narrowed.
“Say that again,” he warned.
Kelly shook his head and replied, “No, I don’t think I will. I think once is good enough, but remember I told you what I was going to ask you was going to make you mad, and I told you that I was going to ask you like a friend.”
“You trust that you’re the father of the baby, because Rose told you so. Am I right?”
“She ain’t been with anybody else,” Jake said. “I’d know. We had something good.” He corrected himself. “We have something good.”
“She wouldn’t keep anything from you, right?”
Jake had to think about that. Nothing seemed to come to mind.
“Does Rose have a lot of money?” Kelly asked.
Jake laughed. “Of course, not. She’s got a crap job with crap pay. The only thing she owns is her mom’s old car and that house her grandad left her.”
Jake’s face darkened. He missed being with her.
“Where are you living now?” Kelly asked.
“I got a one-bedroom above a garage, half a mile from here,” he said. “It’s too close to the road and noisy, but the rent is cheap.”
“That’s tough,” Kelly said. “But what if I was to say that Rose had been keeping something from you, that she had a lot more than you thought she did, a lot more than she ever told you she did –for sure.”
“She couldn’t afford cable television,” he said. “She ain’t got nothing.”
“Yeah, well, that’s where you’re dead wrong, my friend. She’s a got a whole lot. She’s a bunch of money –and I know, because I’ve seen it.”
Jake shook his head. “No, that’s a lie.”
Kelly finished the thin swill in his cup and said, “I saw it this very night. I saw a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills. It was more money than I’d ever seen in my entire life. It was like something out of a movie.”
Jake was listening. He was thinking.
Kelly looked up at him and said, “What I’m thinking is that she’s been playing you. I don’t know why, but I figure if she was being straight with you, she’d have told you about the cash. Also, she sure as heck wouldn’t be working at no gas station, not when she’s about ready to pop.” He tapped the side of his head with a finger. “You just have to think. There’s a lot about this that ain’t right. If she’d hide something like a box full of cash from you, what else would she hide?”
Jake sighed and shook his head, no.
“I think you’re asking way too much out of me. I ain’t seen you in over a year. We ain’t friends. You are a liar and a cheat. And I think you’re just here to stir up crap between Rose and me because she fired your worthless, shiftless, lying butt. I don’t need this, and I think you should just get out that door before I pick you up and toss you out.”
Kelly’s shoulders slumped, disappointed. He’d hoped he could talk some sense into Jake. He expected Jake had a key to Rose’s house –and he had a car.
All they would have to do, he thought, was just go watch the house until she left. Rose probably wouldn’t bring the money with her. She’d hide it in the house while she went to work. Then, they could just search the house after she left and split the cash.
“Just think about it,” he told Jake.
The bartender just said, “Git.”
“Wait,” Kelly said. “It’s an awful long walk. Can I maybe just catch ride?”
Jake laughed and told him to get out of the bar before he called the police.
“They cart your sorry tail to jail, if you want.”
“Fine, I’m going,” Kelly said stiffly and then gathered himself up. “I came bearing a fig leaf and an opportunity. You didn’t want neither. Fine.”
Then he left.
The rain had let up, but Kelly’s clothes were still damp. The air was cool, and the chill clung to him as he left the gravel lot and started down the road.
A beat-up Ford Focus pulled up alongside him. The driver reached across the passenger side seat and rolled the window down.
Kelly recognized him. He was a regular at the Shopaminit; worked at the Pizza Hut over the bridge. He didn’t know his name.
“You need a lift?” the man asked.